Since the glories of Grenoble he had spent most of his time in the jet streams of the world, sharing the company of famous men and beautiful women. He had come to play a passable game of golf. He owned a splendid villa overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. His fiancée was movie star Dani√®le Gaubert, his next door neighbor-was Petula Clark. He was a man of means, of fine manners and fast cars, of celebrity. He had starred in his own television show, made a movie in which he played a swashbuckling schussboomer and enjoyed the adoration of uncountable lovely ladies. At 29—just 29—he was a millionaire, a world citizen of enormous sex appeal. There was not much that Jean-Claude Killy did not have.
And yet, here he was standing in a shivering crowd of a few hundred people in a chill November twilight at the foot of Aspen Mountain in Colorado. Here he was, waiting until an executive from a U.S. suitcase manufacturer called out his name, then stepping forward to receive a check for $225. Killy said thank you, but his face was impassive. This was his pay for this day's work. Someone said, "Enough for beer money, Jean-Claude?" The celebrated smile flashed briefly. "No, it's really not."
But then, despite the chill of the day and the meagerness of the pay, Killy smiled once more—and this time there was genuine jubilation in his face. "But I am very happy to have it," he said.
Jean-Claude Killy was back racing again. The man many have called the greatest ski racer of the era—even of all time—had stepped out into the cold snows again from his warm, velvet years of retirement. No longer was he competing for gold medals but for cash. He had suddenly appeared in Aspen determined to compete as a member of that widely unheralded bunch of traveling salesmen-skiers known as the International Ski Racers Association (ISRA). He had come to do battle on the North American professional ski-racing tour, which is a blatantly commercial series of 12 competitions officially known as the Benson & Hedges 100's Grand Prix. The field Killy had entered consisted of a tough, rakish crowd of World Cup dropouts and cutups, has-beens and never-weres, a loose, shaggy gang whose members drink hard, often race red-eyed with hangovers and who sell themselves openly—but with infinite honesty compared to the conspiratorial quasi-bribery and sneak theivery that goes on in World Cup amateur ranks.
December 18, 1972
It is likely that Killy alone has won more World Cup races than the entire membership of ISRA combined. It is a statistical fact that he won three Olympic gold medals, more than any of the 100 or so pro racers competing this season. Killy set unparalleled records in his days as the brightest star of the superb French teams of the mid-60s. In 1965, his first year of stardom, he became European champion. In 1966 Killy swept to the world championship in Portillo. In 1967 he shook the ski world with 23 victories, seizing all World Cup titles: slalom, giant slalom and downhill. And in that most golden year of 1968 he won the World Cup combined crown plus the triple Olympic championship in slalom, giant slalom and downhill, catapulting to unprecedented celebrity and wealth.
But despite the dazzle of reputation and ski records past, Killy did badly in his Aspen baptism as a serious pro racer. He managed to qualify in giant slalom time trials for the final field of 16 racers (and an automatic $225), but he did not survive, losing to a 6'5" Austrian nonentity named Harald (Stork) Stuefer, a fellow who never won a World Cup race in six years of international competition.
In the slalom Killy looked stronger, defeated his first man—but then spilled in the quarterfinals race. He was paid $500 for this day's work, but he still came up notably optimistic. "It was good," he said. "I am surprised it was so good. Even if I did not do well, I felt well."
It was not surprising that Jean-Claude Killy performed without distinction that first weekend, for professional ski racing is a strange and deceptively demanding sport. First, it is based on the dual course concept that pits opponents head to head—first down one course, then switching courses and doing it side by side again. It is a game entirely different from the traditional World Cup runs in which a competitor races alone, flat-out against the clock.
Where a World Cup racer is required to run no more than once a day (in giant slalom or downhill) or at most twice (in the slalom) to win, a Benson & Hedges 100's Grand Prix racer may have to smoke down the course as many as 10 times in a day to win top money. This marathon treadmill includes two time trials in the morning to qualify for the final field of 16, plus two runs in each of the elimination brackets in the afternoon. Because of this killing format, the courses in pro racing are short and relatively simple, mere sprint slaloms with a few artificial jumps and bumps installed to electrify the spectators. In general, these runs do not demand the exquisite hell-bent acrobatic techniques of a Killy to win consistently. A simple burst of brute energy will do at times.
Killy still carried a load of frailties from the softening years of making money. True, he is slim as ever—giving off a sense of coiled explosive power—and in his maturing years he seems handsomer and more graceful than ever before. Yet, he was far from ready to race: "For four years I have not run hard or skied hard or walked hard. I have not tried to stay in condition. To win here as a professional, I must be in better shape than I ever was for the World Cup or the Olympics. I think I have much yet to do."
It was true—up to a point. After the Aspen races, the tour moved to Vail, Colo. for another two-day program. Though he was still plainly not at the peak of his form, Killy performed with such dash and skill that he finished an impressive second to the powerful Stuefer in the giant slalom. The next day he advanced as far as the runoff for third place in the slalom before he fell. For the weekend, Killy collected $2,500 and the following day he left for the familiar hillsides of Val d'Is√®re to train until the next ISRA race in Vermont Jan. 6.
But why was a rich and classy chap like Jean-Claude Killy doing all this anyway? For two weekends of hard work he had a relatively small fistful of $3,225 to show. He had been at least symbolically insulted and had certainly risked tarnishing his gold-plated image by putting himself in a position to lose to some tough but faceless men with unknown names like Stuefer and Hamre and Lassen-Urdahl.
There are answers. Perhaps the first is the fact that the money Killy won in Colorado did not in any way represent the true cash value of his performances. He is represented by that supermerchandiser, Mark McCormack, an entrepreneur whose reverence for the endorsement dollar is surpassed by no living mortal. McCormack has managed Killy's life as a combined commercial hero and living gold-medal advertising image for products ranging from automobiles to sweaters. Yet in the last year or so, Killy's salability had diminished. But now that his man is racing again, says McCormack, "it will rejuvenate him with equipment sponsors. It was always inevitable that he would race again."
The moment Killy announced his return, McCormack's agents asked sponsors for $15,000 per weekend to guarantee his appearance, an impressive sum since the entire treasury available to the field of racers is $20,000 per weekend. The agents always asked for the full $15,000, whether they got it or not. But appearance money will be minimal compared with the bigger jackpot Killy will now draw in fresh endorsements.
The money is there: pro racing has become a robust and rather rich enterprise. Under the energetic promotions of Bob Beattie, former U.S. ski coach and sometime breathless TV sports commentator, the tour was thriving even without the magic name of Killy. Benson & Hedges put up $110,000 to underwrite the 1972-73 season and Beattie peddled individual races to a mixed bag of sponsors ranging from Faberge cosmetics and Samsonite luggage to United Air Lines and McDonald's hamburgers.
There are gimmicks galore, and raggedy and anonymous as Beattie's pro ski racers may seem to the general public, they are by no means impoverished. Though one must discount at least a little of what Beattie says for reasons of raw enthusiasm, he did estimate that with race sponsor's prize money plus the cash from equipment manufacturers (up to $30,000 per season for a ski endorsement alone) there will be more than $1.5 million available to his racers this year.
Indeed, this may be the first time in history that professional ski racers can actually make more money than World Cup amateurs. One who knows all about that is Killy: "In 1965, when I was the best amateur in Europe, I was making $12,000 a year. No racer made any more. Now the best World Cup skier can make close to $100,000 a year—I was paid about half that in the year of the Grenoble Olympics."
Now, with Killy and Alain Penz, Malcolm Milne and Spider Sabich, there are as many star-quality names on the pro circuit as in the World Cup. Only two are missing. Ex-Olympian Billy Kidd has retired and Karl Schranz of Austria, the glowering, temperamental old champ, has pretty much retired to his pension in St. Anton since he was drummed out of Sapporo as the scapegoat-martyr of the 1972 Winter Games. But there are those who hope to lure Schranz to the ISRA. "We could really use him," says Killy. "Karli should come back. He could win, I'm sure. And more important, we need a villain on the tour to build up interest. Karli could be our man in the black hat."
Whether or not Schranz returns (and it is doubtful that he will), the man in pro racing's white hat will certainly be Jean-Claude Killy. For even though money is an object—an important one—in his decision to race again, Killy also is a proud and sensitive man and there were motives more noble than profit behind his return. He said, "I do not live only to make money and all of my decisions are not made because of dollars or francs. It is true, too, that I want to give something back to the sport that has given me everything I have. But I do not think I would have raced again if it had been left to me alone. My fiancée, Dani√®le, and my old friend, Michel Arpin, coaxed me and urged me. 'Jean-Claude,' they said, 'you must do something positive. You are tired of playing golf and silting around Geneva.' They argued with me to race again. I was very much against it. Dani√®le said maybe I was getting old too soon.
"Well, maybe she was right, I thought. I knew there were risks in going back to racing, but I was really missing competition in my life. I needed a challenge. I decided that the important thing was to be happy and I decided that if I raced at least I would have three or four more years of good fun. As for my commercial image, I decided that my clients would rather see me on a mountain than in a department store in Detroit."
Even though his fiancée and his friends were convinced that his return would be triumphal, others were not. "I wanted good equipment," said Killy, "so I went to Dynamic skis again because I had used them in the Olympics. I asked to ski on them again. They turned me down. It was very had to believe. But they thought I was not good anymore."
Not until mid-November was Killy able to go into intensive training at Val d'Is√®re. "I did not plan to race until January," he said, "but the training was not so good in Val d'Is√®re, so Michel Arpin and I decided to fly to Aspen and practice there. We decided we would just watch the races over the weekend because we had never seen one before. But then I could not hold myself back."
Though he had not won any of his first four races, Killy was confident of what was to come: "It is all coming back very fast and I am surprised. It almost feels like before."
Above all, the intrinsic Killy enthusiasm was still there. His eyes were bright and his gestures animated as he discussed his new pursuit as a bona fide professional skier. "This is a great sport, it is the new sport of skiing.
"There is going to be very good skiing here. And in pro racing there are characters. They are exciting, they drink and smoke and they have fun. No one tells them they have to go to bed now and they can't drink and they have to be nice to the men from the national ski federation. This should not be a circus—it is a sport. But maybe we will need a kind of show business atmosphere to bring the people out in St. Paul or in North Carolina when we tour there. Maybe there should be acrobatics and clowns to bring the crowds. But I was very happy to find that this is really so sportif. Now I am very excited and glad to be back in my real business—in the snow and the mountains and racing."
Killy was smiling as he spoke, but now he became quite sober and he leaned forward to make his point. "You know, of course, that for 10 years we have been very serious about skiing in France. We have excelled and we have done much for the sport. Now we will do for pro racing what we did for World Cup racing. We will give it credibility. We will bring it excellence. We will improve the techniques, the ambience, the equipment."
He paused, then raised a finger and jabbed it emphatically. "We are going to bring true professionalism to professional racing."